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Iran Report: May 10, 1999

10 May 1999, Volume 2, Number 19

IRAN FOCUSES ON KOSOVAR REFUGEES. In the last week, Iranian coverage of the Kosova crisis has changed slightly with more attention now being given to the refugee situation, particularly as Moscow and NATO converge in their positions on the conflict itself.

Since the conflict began, Iran has been directing its bilateral and multilateral diplomatic efforts through Russia. So when British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announced on 29 April that Russia's position was moving closer to NATO's shared objectives, Iran may have seen the writing on the wall. One area on which NATO and Russia agree is the need for an international military presence. But questions remain on how fast Serbian forces should withdraw and the subsequent international administration of Kosovo during an interim period.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, speaking at a 4 May press conference with Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Secretary-General Azeddine Laraki, said "our main objective is based on determining the status of Kosovar Muslims, i.e. their safe return to their homeland and their right to decide their own fate." He added that this was dependent on cessation of military operations, withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo and deployment of international forces in the region. These sound very much like the points of contention between Russia and NATO.

Also, the OIC is focusing more on the refugees. "Under present conditions," Kharrazi noted, "shipment of relief aid to refugees has been put on the OIC's agenda. Many Muslim countries donate their help."

Laraki called on Muslim states to offer relief aid to Kosovar refugees. But when asked whether "Muslim states were ready to host the Kosovar refugees," Laraki replied that "the refugees should remain on borders of Kosovo while receiving assistance from Muslims or others" so they can return home as soon as conditions permit, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

Kharrazi said an international consensus was needed to solve the crisis, the OIC has a plan for achieving an international consensus, and "we believe that such a consensus can be achieved only through the UN Security Council." Kharrazi said the Security Council and "international consensus on the issue would exert necessary pressure on Belgrade to stop its repressive operations." Kharrazi added that Iran and the OIC "would do their best to put pressures on Belgrade by raising the issue at the Security Council."

Finally, as the conflict continues Iranian humanitarian concern for the mostly-Muslim Kosovar Albanians is becoming more evident. IRNA reported that 13 May will be a Day for Solidarity with Muslim Kosovars. And as of 8 May, Iran had delivered eight consignments of relief supplies, including blankets, tents, foodstuffs, detergents, and canned foods to Macedonia and Albania."

While there is greater attention to the refugees, as well as hints that the Russian lead will be followed, rhetoric continues its anti-U.S. theme. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the Supreme Leader's representative to the relief headquarters for Kosovar Muslims, said "the U.S. double-standard policy towards the Balkans crisis on the one hand and Washington's support for independence of Kosovo on the other provoked the Serbs to attack Muslim Kosovars." Jannati went on to say, IRNA reported on 9 May, that the U.S. is trying to gain a foothold in the Balkans at Russia's expense, and "the U.S. wants Western countries to have the last word in the Kosovo crisis like what happened in Bosnia." On 4 May IRNA claimed an International Institute of Strategic Studies report said U.S. leadership was "the principal challenge for NATO as it enters middle age." The IRNA article also described "the U.S. in its discriminatory role." (Bill Samii)

KARBASCHI CONVICTION NOW IRRELEVANT TO KHATAMI. Former Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi reported to the Shahid Beheshti judicial complex on 6 May to begin serving a two-year sentence on corruption charges. He will be held at Evin prison. Several of Karbaschi's friends accompanied him to the judicial complex, and a group of his supporters chanted slogans outside the building, according to IRNA. Some 146 parliamentarians requested Karbaschi's pardon in a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, IRNA reported on 9 May.

Karbaschi is seen by many as the architect of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's successful presidential campaign. Yet it was under then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that Karbaschi's technocratic Executives of Construction Party was created. It was Rafsanjani who consistently intervened with the judiciary on Karbaschi's behalf (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 January 1999). Iranians came to see Karbaschi and the Executives of Construction as Rafsanjani allies, particularly in the period surrounding the October Assembly of Experts election, when Karbaschi urged people to vote although some moderate, pro-Khatami groups advocated a boycott and many Executives of Construction candidates were not allowed to run.

The strength of Karbaschi's connection with Rafsanjani was revealed on 8 May. That day, "Hamshahri," the daily associated with the Tehran municipality, published a letter written by the former mayor to Rafsanjani. Karbaschi wrote that the municipality's work was "carried out under the guidance and guidelines of your excellency. ... your excellency was constantly briefed on every detail of our work, including matters concerning the financial and welfare condition of the [municipal ] administrators." The letter went on to say that the "granting of a few concessions" was in keeping with Rafsanjani's directive to attract "a skilled and able workforce." Therefore, Karbaschi wrote, he is being imprisoned for implementing policies authorized by Rafsanjani himself.

In his response, also published in "Hamshahri," Rafsanjani denied nothing. He thanked Karbaschi for his service and urged him to be patient "until the day when the groundwork has been laid for you to continue your service." One of the few remaining hopes for Karbaschi is the trial of police officers on charges of torturing Tehran municipal officials. If found guilty, the evidence they secured may be discarded.

The imprisonment of Karbaschi is no longer very relevant to Khatami's political fortunes. Members of the Executives of Construction left the party to found the pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party last autumn. And Khatami himself made a greater effort on the behalf of the Tehran municipal council that was sworn in several weeks ago than he did on Karbaschi's behalf. The new municipal council will select the new mayor. The president's major effort seems to have been a phone call to Karbaschi's wife, in which he said "We are facing divine trials and tribulations and each one of us should undergo some sort of test. We hope that he (Karbaschi) comes out of this test with flying colors," IRNA reported on 8 May. (Bill Samii)

PROSECUTORIAL DELAYS DISTURB SOME. While there is still no hard news in the case of Iranian intellectuals and dissidents murdered last year by Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) officials, public dissatisfaction with the lack of overt progress has produced some reaction from the state. Also, there have been developments in other cases. But the impact of these developments in terms of reducing the activities of right-wing vigilantes, many of whom are members of state security institutions, remains to be seen.

In the case connected with the MOIS it appears increasingly likely that foreigners will be made the scapegoats. In this way, Iranian institutions can avoid responsibility for actually fixing the system. Addressing a student gathering in Semnan on 2 May, Prosecutor Hojatoleslam Mohammad Niazi said there were no changes in the case of the murdered intellectuals and dissidents. He did say that "all agents involved in the murders as well as their associates and masterminds have been identified, [but] the motives have not been identified yet." Niazi went on to say there is "no definite view" regarding the "involvement of foreign agents," but "evidence shows that the crime has been committed through the directives of the aliens." Niazi hopes the investigation will be over by year's end.

Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi said during the 7 May Friday Prayers that the progress of the investigation was "satisfactory." He went on to say that the investigation must continue to learn the assassins' objectives and motives, and also to discover the "alien hand behind the killings."

On 3 May, the trial of Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, head of National Police counterintelligence, began. Naqdi and several of his subordinates were arrested on charges of having tortured Tehran municipal officials in connection with the trial of Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, and there have been allegations that Naqdi was behind the assaults on Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani and former-Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 March 1999).

The Naqdi trial may have an impact on the Karbaschi conviction. If it was gained through illegal methods, such as torture, the evidence against Karbaschi may be discarded. But since the trial is being held in camera, this may never come to light.

Also, suspects were arrested on 24 April for the attempt to assassinate Tehran Justice Department chief Hojatoleslam Ali Razini. The assailants allegedly were members of the heretofore unknown Mahdaviyat group. While the group itself apparently is a new one, it has many of the characteristics ascribed to the murderers in "Salam" and "Jahan-i Islam" newspapers (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 April 1999). IRGC ground forces commander Brigadier-General Mohammad Ali Jaafari said the Mahdaviyat group had 30 members. Its ideology was similar to the Hojjatiyeh Society's and they had some members in common. Mahdaviyat is a Shia Islamic belief system based on anticipation of the Mahdi's return. When the Mahdi, who currently is in occultation, returns, all injustice and oppression will be eliminated.

On 6 May, the English-language daily "Iran News" reported that the group's plan to assassinate Expediency Council chairman Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was discovered and neutralized. (Bill Samii)

YAZDI DEFENDS JUDICIARY. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi and Justice Minister Hojatoleslam Ismail Shushtari recently toured several new provincial judicial facilities. Speaking in Qazvin on 2 May, Yazdi said the judiciary lacks skilled manpower, which means investigators must serve as judges, while judges serve as branch chiefs. For this reason, people are critical. Yazdi rejected criticism, citing the number of cases referred to the Supreme Court and the number of rulings the Supreme Court upholds. Negative comments are politically motivated, and he said "those seeking to divide people are using factionalism to sow discord," IRNA reported.

For over a year there have been suggestions that Yazdi is serving as the axman for the hardliners, and once they get rid of their political rivals, Yazdi will resign. "Entekhab" daily announced on 22 April that there are two possible replacements for Yazdi. One candidate is Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi, who is a member of the Council of Guardians and the Council for the Discernment of Expediency. The other candidate is parliamentarian Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri.

A 1 May "Tehran Times" report indicated Yazdi's lack of popularity. "In a heated exchange of words between Mrs. Esmat Hashemi [and Yazdi]," the case of Mrs. Hashemi's daughter Faezeh was discussed. (Bill Samii)

IRAQ MISTREATS IRANIAN PILGRIMS. A reason for Iran's reluctance to participate in U.S.-based anti-Saddam operations is concern over the loss of access to Shia pilgrimage sites in Najaf and Karbala, as well as concern for Shia co-religionists (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 December 1998). But the Iraqi regime is making performance of such activities increasingly difficult and is only isolating itself further, Iranian newspapers report.

According to "Jomhuri-yi Islami" daily on 15 April, Iraq closed its border with Syria to Iranian pilgrims. Now, those who want to visit holy sites in Syria after visiting Iraqi sites will have to pay $850, rather than the previous rate of $410.

Problems exist for Iranian pilgrims coming the other way, too, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 19 April. Uday, son of Iraqi President Saddam Husseyn, runs the Al-Hoda company which handles the visits of Iranian pilgrims. And Al-Hoda has sharply increased its rates. Originally, the total charge was $450, but now Iranian pilgrims pay $600 to the Iraqi government, $150 for tickets and food, $100 for a visa, and they also must exchange $50 into Iraqi dinars at the border.

The visit to Najaf and Karbala themselves, while impressive for religious reasons, also suffers drawbacks. Pilgrims interviewed by Tehran's "Keyhan" newspaper on 26 November 1998 complained that they could not interact with their Iraqi co-religionists "because of the monitoring of the Iraqi officials." Iraqis would surround the Iranian visitors and request financial help, and it was sometimes provided, but Iraqi officials made this difficult. Iranian interaction with Iraqi hotel workers was blocked, too. Iranian pilgrims were not permitted to leave their official hotels and they were not allowed to visit Iraqi cities. "It can be said that they built a strong wall between the people of Iran and the Iraqis."

Despite these problems, devout Iranians remain hopeful that the situation will eventually improve. As one told "Keyhan," "We hope the day will come when the Muslim people of Iran will be able to visit their Imams in Iraq freely." (Bill Samii)

CABINET CHANGES. Changes are expected in President Mohammad Khatami's cabinet. The "Tehran Times" announced on 22 April that Central Bank Governor Mohsen Nourbakhsh will be replaced by presidential economic adviser Rajabali Mazrooi. Others who will move on are, according to the daily, Economic Affairs Minister Hossein Namazi, Roads and Transport Minister Mohammad Hojjati, Construction Jihad Minister Mohammad Saidi-Kia, and Industries Minister Gholamreza Shafei.

The career of Hojatoleslam Hadi Khamenei has taken a curious turn recently. Khamenei, brother of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and publisher of the "Jahan-i Islam" daily, was attacked physically in Qom because of his alliance with Khatami. But now Khamenei has been tapped as the new director of the Martyr Foundation (Bonyad-i Shahid), which assists victims of the Iran-Iraq War. It is not known why Hojatoleslam Mohammad Hassan Rahimian is resigning the directorship, although "Arya" hinted on 13 April at financial improprieties. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hadi's brother, must confirm the appointment.

Khatibi, the director-general of the Qom Intelligence Department is being replaced by Nowruzi, "Keyhan" reported on 5 May. While no reason for the change was given, it may have something to do with the February violence in Qom, which was linked to the MOIS and IRGC. (Bill Samii)

NORWEGIAN POLITICIANS PROMOTE TIES WITH IRAN. Iran and Norway, which until recently had poor relations due to the Salman Rushdie death decree and the subsequent shooting of the Norwegian publisher of Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," soon will exchange ambassadors. But before that happens, there have been some lower-level official exchanges.

In April, Deputy Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture Ahmad Masjed Jamei visited Oslo. In the first week of May, a Norwegian parliamentary delegation led by the head of the Stortinget foreign relations committee, Haaken Blankenborg, visited Tehran. The Norwegians met with Parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, vice speaker Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and Vice President for Environmental Protection Masumeh Ebtekar. Nateq-Nouri told his Norwegian visitors that an "exchange of ambassadors between the two countries will be one of the most important moves which will help improve Tehran-Oslo ties," IRNA reported. Nateq-Nouri also called for cooperation in the oil sector.

Rohani declared sincerely that "the Islamic Republic of Iran condemns any acts which may lead to a clash of civilizations and considers dialog and consensus among cultures as the sole way of establishing sound relations among nations."

In the meeting with Kharrazi, Blankenborg said "cooperation in combating terrorism is a part of future Iran-Norway dialog." Norway's interest in terrorism may stem from the October 1993 shooting of William Nygaard, Norwegian publisher of "The Satanic Verses." The case remains unresolved. Blankenborg also told the Foreign Minister that the level of discourse in Iranian parliamentary debates and developments in domestic Iranian politics "have impressed us, and, given Iran's geopolitical location in the region, Norway is interested in expansion of ties with Iran."

Until recently, relations between the two countries had been poor. In early-1995, Iran threatened Norway with an economic boycott over its stance on the Rushdie issue. Tehran had already recalled its ambassador because he had written a letter to his Norwegian counterparts saying the Rushdie decree would not be enforced.

Foreign Minister Bjoern Tore Godal announced in May 1997 that Norway prefers dialog in international relations, "But dialog does not get through to certain regimes." Citing the Rushdie decree and the murder of dissidents abroad, Godal said Norway will cut off export guarantees for trade and investment, will oppose any new loans from the World Bank to Iran, will oppose Iranian membership in the Asian Bank, and will block its membership in the World Trade Organization.

After 1993, the Norwegian government discouraged investment in Iran, a Norwegian official told RFE/RL. But in October 1998 Oslo's Trade Council announced that Norwegian firms were just operating through Dubai. So although trade with Iran dropped and there are only three Norwegian firms in Iran, the number of Norwegian firms with offices in Dubai doubled since about 1993-94.

The importance of commercial interests for most countries in their dealings with Iran was demonstrated in March, when Norway, along with other non-OPEC oil producers, agreed to production cuts in order to drive oil prices upward. But unlike most European states, Norway is not dependent on Iran for its oil, and Iran is not a market for sophisticated Norwegian goods. While Iran owes billions of dollars to France, Italy, and Germany, furthermore, it does not have Norway as a creditor.

Based on the findings of the parliamentary delegation, Norway will consider expanded ties in the oil and telecommunication sectors. In January 1999, Saga Petroleum expressed an interest in investing in the Dehl Uran and Cheshmeh-Khosh fields. Saga signed a $2.7 million agreement with the National Iranian Oil Company to evaluate seismic data on the Dara block and the Handijan offshore oil field, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in April 1999.

A Norwegian diplomat told RFE/RL that although it is still concerned about the Rushdie decree and human rights, her government believes relations with Iran will strengthen moderate groups working towards change. She did not identify the "moderate groups." (Bill Samii)

AZERBAIJANI JOURNALIST DETAINED IN IRAN. Azer H. Hasret, chairman of Azerbaijan's Trade Union of Journalists, claimed in the first week of May that editor in chief of the "Express Newspaper," Qanimet Zahidov, was arrested by Iranian security forces on 3 May. Before his arrest, Zahidov had interviewed Iranian-Azeri academic Mahmoud Ali Chehragani (Johragani), who is under house arrest in Tabriz, according to Azerbaijani sources. At the moment, Zahidov's whereabouts are unknown. On 6 May, the Committee for the Protection of Q. Zahidov was established, with Gunduz Tahirly, editor of "Azadlyg" daily, as its chairman.

In an interview with Baku's "525 Gazet," former Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey, who heads the Committee of Defense of the Rights of Mr. Chehragani, said Chehragani favors unification of parts of Iran with Azerbaijan. If Chehragani does not say this publicly, according to Elchibey, it is because he is not a free man. (Bill Samii)

CORRECTION: The 3 May "RFE/RL Iran Report" stated that Tehran referred to the White House announcement that American companies will be able to sell food and medicine to Iran as a "surrender." In fact, the word used by the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran was decision ("tasmim"), rather than surrender ("taslim�). (Bill Samii)